Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad is out of the lineup with a neck injury, and his coach feels responsible.
After Ekblad missed four games with a concussion, he was medically cleared to return to the lineup. He lasted one game, and is now on the shelf with a sore neck. Coach and GM Tom Rowe made a startling admission to the Miami Herald’s George Richards.
“I’m not going to lie, I wish we didn’t. That’s on me. The doctors cleared him, our medical staff cleared him but I had some reservations and I wish I stayed with my gut. That’s no one’s fault but my own.”
The team has made it abundantly clear that Ekblad’s current injury is not related to his recent concussion, but suffering head and neck injuries 10 days apart is not a good thing for the 21-year-old defenseman. He’s already suffered at least two concussions in his career: in 2014 at the Canadian World Juniors camp and in 2016 after getting run by the Oilers’ Matt Hendricks. He also suffered whiplash at the World Cup in September, after a big hit from the Maple Leafs’ Leo Komarov; whiplash and concussions are often linked. With the Panthers’ season essentially over (more on that below), there’s little sense in trying to get him back in the lineup, argues Matt Larkin of The Hockey News. Ekblad has suffered as many concussions as NHL seasons played, which Larkin fears could lead him down the Eric Lindros path.
Ekblad is in the final year of his entry-level contract, and will start an eight-year extension next season.
- It’s been a brutal season for center Nick Bjugstad. After three-straight seasons of 34-plus points, Bjugstad has just 10 points in 45 games this season, including five goals. Both Bjugstad and Rowe have publicly expressed displeasure with how the player’s season has gone. Injuries have played their part, but no one is using that as an excuse. Veteran teammate Jussi Jokinen told Richards that “every player has a tough year but you don’t define a career on one rough season.” Bjugstad has four years left in a six-year extension, making $4.1MM per season. After the season he’s having, it’s unlikely anyone will be trading for him just yet, so Bjugstad will get his chance to turn it around in Florida.
- The Panthers were four points out of the playoffs when two-thirds of their top line returned from injury in early February. They won six of their next seven games, but have once again fallen out with just six wins in their next 17 games. Florida is seven points out of the final wildcard spot with nine games remaining. It would take a huge run combined with several stunning collapses by division rivals for them to make it now.